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San Diego city attorney sues drugmakers, alleging deceit behind nation's opioid epidemic

San Diego city attorney sues drugmakers, alleging deceit behind nation's opioid epidemic
In this 2013 file photo, OxyContin pills are shown at a pharmacy in Vermont. On Thursday, San Diego's city attorney filed a federal lawsuit against the drugmakers and distributors of such powerful painkillers, saying the companies fueled the nation's opioid crisis. (Toby Talbot / Associated Press)

The San Diego city attorney’s office on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against major manufacturers of prescription painkillers, alleging company officials knew they were stoking the country’s opioid crisis.

“Opioid manufacturers have profited handsomely from the human suffering they intentionally inflicted through manipulation and deceit,” City Atty. Mara Elliott said in a statement.

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“While San Diego will long deal with the destructive consequences of their greed, we intend to hold them accountable for funding drug treatment and education programs that will protect the health and safety of San Diegans.”

Thousands of cities, counties and states, hospitals and individuals across the nation have been filing similar lawsuits for years.

More than 1,000 of the cases have been consolidated as multi-district litigation overseen by an Ohio federal judge.

Elliott’s statement notes that the city’s lawsuit is expected to become part of the consolidated case.

San Diego is going after the makers and distributors of powerful painkillers, such as Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2016, 42,249 people fatally overdosed on illicit and prescription opioids.

Most of the death toll was attributed to illicit fentanyl, a potent synthetic heroin widely spread in the street market. Prescription drugs were involved in an estimated 34% of the deaths, the CDC reported in 2018.

San Diego City Atty. Mara Elliott on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against the makers of opioid drugs.
San Diego City Atty. Mara Elliott on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against the makers of opioid drugs. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The city alleges Connecticut-based Purdue, its billionaire owners the Sackler family and other major companies created a public nuisance and used deception to market the drugs.

Robert Josephson, a spokesman for Purdue, has previously issued statements defending the company’s work to provide a valuable drug to chronic pain sufferers and to reduce opioid abuse.

When the Massachusetts attorney general sued Purdue and other companies, Josephson told CNN that the state was trying to “blame [Purdue] for the entire opioid crisis, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system."

Elliott is seeking damages to fund drug treatment and education programs, return allegedly unlawful profits and recover the city’s costs in responding to the opioid crisis. The prosecutor also alleges the companies ran an ongoing conspiracy in violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — know as RICO.

Defendants in the city’s lawsuit include Rhodes, Teva, Janssen, Allergan, Actavis, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson pharmaceutical companies.

The suit specifically names eight members of the ultra-rich Sackler family. Brothers Mortimer, Raymond and Arthur Sackler, all now deceased, founded Purdue Pharma, which later developed OxyContin.

Forbes estimates the Sackler family’s worth at $13 billion. Family members are known for worldwide philanthropy, especially directed toward museums and galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Sackler Museum in Beijing and the Royal Academy in London.

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